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Sarah Butterfield: Dusk and Dawn in The Solent exhibition

Sarah Butterfield - July 2011 Evening in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield
Sarah Butterfield - July 2011 Evening in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

Emma Joseph sits down with Havant artist Sarah Butterfield, whose work capturing the stunning sunsets and sunrises over the Solent, is the subject of an exhibition at Petersfield Museum

'I became an addict,' confesses Sarah Butterfield, somewhat guiltily.

Having one day, by chance, spotted a stunning sunset as she cycled home from a swim in the sea at Hayling Island, the Havant-based artist admits she simply couldn't get enough of the scene.

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield. Image: Sarah Butterfield

'The more you do of anything, if it's interesting you, the more you want to do,' she explains. 'This went on for years. So whatever else I was doing, I was still going down. I would take the dog, walk down there with my paints and palette.

'It's after the sun sets that you get the best colours – I noticed the colours got weirder and more interesting as gloaming fell.'

Fascinated by what she was witnessing, Sarah went back for more again and again, until she had amassed a whole collection of paintings done between January 2009 and the present day, capturing both sunsets and sunrises at varying times throughout the year.

The work was the subject of an exhibition at London's prestigious Mall Galleries two years ago, and Sarah Butterfield: Dusk and Dawn in The Solent is now on display at Petersfield Museum, which contacted the award-winning artist with an interest in showing a 'jewellery box' collection of the paintings.

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield - February 2016 Sunrise in The Solent. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield - February 2016 Sunrise in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

In fact it was museum curator Louise Weller who suggested charting the course of the year, as Sarah hadn't even realised she had covered every month with the snapshots of time she had captured.

'Because they're smaller paintings, they're little ones, we were able to spread them all out in the house and move them around,' says Sarah. 'That little bit of magic was performed by Louise, who knows the gallery space and where the walls interpose. She's a brilliant curator.'

While she admits it was often 'stingingly cold' boarding the 6am Portsmouth to Isle of Wight ferry to catch the sunrise across the water during, Sarah, who says her work is inspired by Impressionist painter Claude Monet, insists there's something rather special about painting en plein air.

'What I love about outdoors painting is you're tied into when is the tide, what's the weather doing, when is the time of year, when is sunset?' You discover extraordinary things,' she explains.

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield - June 2016 Sunrise in The Solent. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield - June 2016 Sunrise in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

'Living in this part of the world, Hampshire and Dorset are kind of cousins. They're coastal counties and what the tides are doing does affect your movements. it's not just the weather. If you can pirouette around what's happening in the natural world, it's very exciting.

'You've got the fireworks of the sky, and this cacophony of changing colour and it's all absolutely beautiful. I want to show the iridescence of these twinkling pinpoints of artificial light.'

Seeing things with an artist's eye is something that has come naturally to Sarah from a young age.

She remembers marvelling at the plain white walls, while lying in her cot, and similarly, at the view of the sky from her pram.

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield - April 2017 Sunrise in The Solent. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield - April 2017 Sunrise in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

'I was brought up in an era when children did not have much stimulation, but I have these very unbelievably memories of loving both things.' she says.

'I won a prize when I was seven for a painting of the Jabberwock. For some reason, I arrived at the class late and all the pretty blues and pinks had gone. I thought I would let myself go with these muddy colours and I won a prize.

'I did a tiger when I was about six. Someone said "how do you know that the rear leg of a tiger looks like a dog?" I said I just knew. Even when I was a child, I said to my friends "look, the sky comes right down to the top of the buildings" - they just looked at me.'

Passionate about sport growing up – 'I was captain of every team I've ever been in' – Sarah is the daughter of a British professor of medicine and an American poet. Although she harboured ambitions to be an artist, her parents were 'nervous' about an artistic career, and so instead encouraged Sarah to become an architect.

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield - May 2014 Evening in The Solent. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield - May 2014 Evening in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

'I desperately wanted to learn how to paint, because I knew what I was doing wasn't really painting,' she remembers. 'I would see still life with all the colours squashed down and deep, but radiant, and I thought "what are they thinking about?"

'I wanted to go to art school, but my parents were very nervous about it, so I did architecture first and then went to art school, so I was a bit older than everybody else at The Ruskin School of Art, at Oxford University. I wasn't sure I would ever work as an artist or earn money from it, so I worked as an architect.'

Despite having held exhibitions during her time as an art student, it wasn't until the age of 34, when she was commissioned to produce a mural, that Sarah decided this was the catalyst she needed. Over the course of a life-changing weekend, she gave up her job as an architect and became an artist.

What followed was a somewhat impressive career. Her paintings are owned by Jenny Agutter, Professor Brian Cox, Richard Curtis, John Humphreys, Rt Hon Michael Portillo, Lord Coe, HM The King, HM The Queen and Jon Snow as well as in many public and private collections in Europe and America.

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield - September 2016 Sunset in The Solent. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield - September 2016 Sunset in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

She has exhibited at major London galleries, including The Royal College of Art, Agnew’s, Cadogan Contemporary, Albemarle and Frost & Reed and has exhibited in New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai and received the Artist Magazine Award at the Royal Society of British Artists at the Mall Galleries in 2018.

Sarah still draws on the passion for physics she inherited from her father, insisting: 'painting is quite a scientific matter, if you're doing related colour'.

'Actually,' she adds, 'related colour is the keystone to the paintings in this exhibition. You look for the lightest colour and the darkest. Like an election swingometer – my husband was an MP – (Sarah's husband David (Willetts was MP for Havant, 1992-2015) – you then go from the brightest, one, to darkest, five, the second lightest, two, the second darkest, four, and then, by process of elimination, you find the mid-tones, which is what you see the most of.

'Painting is quite deep – you don't paint what you see, you paint what you know and what you figure out. Then the magic begins. Thinking like a scientist has helped me as an artist.'

Great British Life: Sarah Butterfield - October 2018 Evening in The Solent. Image: Sarah ButterfieldSarah Butterfield - October 2018 Evening in The Solent. Image: Sarah Butterfield

Next on the agenda, Sarah is turning her attentions to writing about the Impressionists as well as continuing to paint local views as well as figure paintings from the Renaissance.

'I like to think I'm painting for me,' she smiles. 'I've never really had to hunt for things, things just kept turning up. I suppose I did court opportunities – you do have to partially create your opportunities. Keep going out there and meeting people, keep the flow with the paintings.

'I tend to follow every idea I'm conscious of, whether it's a quick drawing or a watercolour, or I save it up for another stint in the studio.

'I think I'm just continuously inspired to paint.'

* Sarah Butterfield: Dusk and Dawn in The Solent, is at Petersfield Museum and Art Gallery until February 24

petersfieldmuseum.co.uk / sarahbutterfield.co.uk



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